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Connecticut lawmakers warned state is at risk for outbreaks

Health

Connecticut lawmakers should not become complacent with the state’s high vaccination rate, public health experts said Monday, warning that clusters of unvaccinated students identified in recent Department of Public Health data pose a public health risk for the entire state.

Linda Niccolai, an epidemiology professor at Yale School of Medicine, said Connecticut “right now is really at risk for outbreaks” given the state data show about 100 schools have vaccination rates below federally recommended guidelines of 95% for measles, mumps and rubella. Connecticut’s statewide immunization rate is 96.5%. The data also show greater than 5% of the students in more than 50 schools have religious exemptions from vaccines, a figure that has been climbing in the state.

“These are communities where the overall coverage is so low, it’s low enough that diseases can come in, can get populated, established, cause outbreaks and spread,” she said. “So even though we have high overall coverage, what this report highlighted is pockets, clusters of unvaccinated kids where it’s only a matter of time for one measles infection to come into these communities and then you have an outbreak, and then it spreads beyond that cluster to other people.”

Niccolai was among a group of speakers invited to an informational legislative hearing on Connecticut’s religious exemption, which state legislators are considering eliminating in the wake of an uptick in measles cases across the country. The experts stressed Monday that vaccines save lives and are overwhelmingly safe.

There have been three confirmed cases in Connecticut so far this year. One case has been tied to New York, where medical organizations and county health officials have called for eliminating that state’s religious exemptions for vaccines. Most of the nation’s 764 reported cases of measles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been in New York.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, who helped to organize Monday’s hearing, recently said “there’s a growing consensus that Connecticut is going to need to do something pretty bold in the coming weeks, coming months” about the state’s religious exemption, which some lawmakers believe is being misused by people who opposed vaccinations for reasons other than religion. Connecticut’s religious exemption has been on the books since at least 1959.

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Lawmakers have not discussed ending the existing medical exemption.

Monday’s hearing was packed with parents concerned about the safety of vaccines. Some wore stickers that read “My God, My Choice” and “Facts, Not Fear,” arguing that lawmakers are overreacting to the measles outbreaks and putting them in the difficult position of having to vaccinate their children or not enroll them in school.

Melissa Sullivan, executive vice president of Health Choice Connecticut, questioned why state lawmakers were holding a hearing late into the legislative session on such a controversial idea that hasn’t been drafted yet as a bill. Sullivan, who believes her child was harmed by a vaccine, said she and other parents would likely move out of Connecticut if faced with having to vaccinate.

“They are not going to injure their child,” she said. “I am not going to injure my child with a vaccine. I will not do it. It will be over my dead body.”

While few organized religions oppose vaccination, some parents argued that eliminating the religious exemption would violate their own religious creed of doing no harm to their children.

“There is no emergency for the removal of my First Amendment rights,” said LeeAnn Ducat, founder of Informed Choice CT, another group that argues vaccination should be a choice.

Last week, Democratic Attorney General William Tong issued a non-binding legal opinion that determined the state has “broad authority to require and regulate immunizations for children” and that creating, eliminating or suspending the religious exemption is within the state’s “well-settled power to protect public safety and health.”

California, Mississippi and West Virginia do not have religious exemptions.

It remains unclear if Connecticut lawmakers will push ahead with a vote this year to end the exemption. The legislative session adjourns June 5.

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